by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
It has not been easy to acknowledge that feminism has promoted the unraveling of the most binding and important social bonds. Not easy, but unavoidable. Like countless other women who cherish improvement in the situation of women in the United States and throughout the world, I was initially quick to embrace feminism as the best way to secure our "rights" and our dignity as persons. Like countless others, I was seriously misled.
As a child, I dreamed of becoming the first woman president of the United States and of having twenty-three children. I have accomplished neither, but the spirit that informed those dreams has continued to inform my aspirations for a just and humane society.
Beginning in the 1960s, the feminist movement seemed to offer an appropriate strategy for promoting full social participation for women. Coming in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the women's movement seemed an overdue response to the social, legal, and economic liabilities that curtailed women's access to countless opportunities. Many of us rather uncritically responded to the call to work for the improvement in women's situation, even when we had nagging doubts about the leaders or particular strategies of the movement.
My own doubts were rooted in my erstwhile dream of twenty-three children and the attendant assumption that I would be blessed with a loving and enduring marriage. Naïve as my expectations may seem today, they had never included the possibility that feminism would require the sacrifice of marriage and children — a binding connection to other persons.
Although not at the time a practicing Christian, I had been imbued with traditional Christian values and teachings, laced with a strong dose of Calvinist morality. That Calvinist legacy, especially as conveyed by the grandmother I adored, prepared me to respect the claims of duty and loyalty, especially to the family members to whom our obligations are greatest.
Never was I promised a rose garden, but I was taught to find unexpected rewards in hard work and self-denial. Coming from this background, I found no appeal in the rhetoric and goals of "liberation", and sexual liberation in particular did not rank high on my list of women's just demands. But for the movement as a whole, sexual liberation rapidly moved to the top of the charts.
In 1973, most of us knew much less about abortion than we know today. Thus I, among many, did not immediately grasp its ominous implications.
I never much liked the idea of abortion, but mainly because I mistrusted the language of "rights" in which it was couched. How, I asked myself, could we justify giving one person the "right" to take the life of another? The only solution I could see was to defend a social consensus about the beginning of life and to argue that viable life only begins at what [was] once called "quickening", namely after three months.1
But…my opposition had gradually stiffened. Euthanasia, or what is euphemistically known as "assisted suicide", played a growing role in my thought, for, in the case of euthanasia abuse was so easy — and so often self-serving and convenient. Ronald Dworkin's Life's Dominion forcefully brought home the complacency with which we privileged intellectuals decide for others which "quality of life" is worth living.2 And those thoughts brought me back to abortion. How can we ever be sure that an "unplanned pregnancy" will not be a blessing?
Feminism has officially declared that no woman should ever suffer the burdens of an undesired pregnancy, a position that feminists prefer to translate into the platitude that each child must be "wanted". But children are not convinced by platitudes. A mother's right to bear only the children she chooses puts the children on a very short leash: wanted one moment, they can never be sure of still being wanted the next.
But then feminism has, from the start, cast the care for children as work fit only for servants, or at least as work that no woman should ever be compelled to shoulder. That attitude, as the King of Siam said to Anna, "is a puzzlement". He was referring to the modern practices that were pressing for an increase in equality of status between a monarch and his subjects and between a man (king that he might be) and a woman. But the early glimmers of modernity that troubled His Majesty were the direct precursors of the feminism that today is sundering relations between women and men and parents and children.
As rules go, the words of the Preacher have held up as well as any: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us". (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10) The book of Ecclesiastes abounds with assurances about continuities, and it warns against the vanity of pretenses, whether to wisdom or to accomplishment or to abiding fame. And well into the twentieth century, its vision seemed to prevail. Its verses afforded Ernest Hemingway the title for The Sun Also Rises, which he borrowed from "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose", (Ecclesiastes 1:5) just as it afforded Pete Seeger "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven". (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Throughout history, societies and cultures have revered and relied upon tradition. Even Western civilization, with its predilection for revolutions, has viewed human nature as essentially unchanging. And although patterns of relations between the sexes have varied widely, the understanding of human nature has everywhere been grounded in sexual difference. Chinese and Andean peasants have assuredly differed about the specifics, as both differed from the citizens of ancient Athens and from the nobles of medieval or early modern Europe. Yet each group, in its own way, took the difference between the sexes as an article of faith and took the sexuality of nubile young women as a matter of great consequence. The seeming universality of these patterns lends a patina of plausibility to feminist arguments that human history is nothing but the saga of men's domination of women. Feminists insist that patriarchy has constituted the oldest, most intractable, and most enduring social system and that the oppression of women trumps all competitors, notably oppression by class and race.
Competition over who suffers the greatest oppression persists, but its outcome does not affect the claim that sexual difference has constituted the cornerstone of the practical and symbolic life of all cultures and civilizations. Men and women's specific social, political, and economic roles have varied widely from one society to another, but notwithstanding the surprising variety in the
allocation of male and female roles, most — if not all — societies have insisted on the significance of sexual difference itself. Yes, moralists, pundits, official story-tellers, and other custodians of community mores have typically insisted that nature has ordained women for one or another specific role, frequently — although not always — in obedience and subservience to male kin. But cross-culturally, the point is not so much the specific roles as the difference between the roles of women and those of men.
This distinction is central to an understanding of our contemporary situation and especially to the broadside attack on women's "natural" roles within families. The attitudes and customs that have restricted women to specific roles have proven easy targets for feminists. Recent decades have witnessed the collapse of the obstacles to women's participation in countless occupations. It has become increasingly difficult to argue that women cannot enter virtually any occupation or profession they choose, including some for which nature, arguably, has not endowed them. We now have women who serve as police chiefs or sheriffs, serve in the armed forces, serve as fire fighters, and who have made it impossible for any to doubt women's ability to excel as athletes. The growing popular recognition of women's abilities paved the way for radicals to conflate this new (and often guilty) acknowledgment that women had been excluded from many opportunities, with the claim that there is no natural difference between the sexes. The sleight of hand is worthy of an accomplished magician, and, like the best feats of magic, it has successfully displaced public attention from what is really happening.
What is really happening may well be what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes thought we would never see: something new under the sun. For throughout the twentieth century, and at an accelerating rate toward its close, the peoples of the globe experienced a magnitude and rate of change without precedent in human experience. Between the opening of the century and its close, the world's population increased threefold. As recently as 1900, most of the world's people lived on the land and worked in subsistence agriculture, usually with hand tools that had changed little for centuries. Even the economically dynamic United States did not become fifty percent urban until 1920. Until then, Britain was alone in having more than half its population in cities, torn from the familiar social and moral context of rural life. The twentieth century revolutionized the life of agricultural people throughout the globe. As 2000 dawned, more that half of the world's population lived in cities. During the same period, life expectancy rose from forty-five to seventy-five years, and, in the 1990s, the risk of dying in childbirth was at least forty times less than a mere fifty years before, although some forms of abortion may be causing a new — and largely hidden — increase in those risks.
In the short run, these changes produced an increase of population, but the increase resulted from medical advances that defer death rather than from an increase in births. Recent demographic studies confirm that hysteria about overpopulation is sorely misguided. Some parts of the world have experienced an increase in births, but even this increase does not portend more of the same in the future. Since the first decade of the twenty-first century, the dramatic decline in birth rates in the most highly developed countries had been followed by an unexpectedly sharp decline in the less developed countries. That decline resulted in part from the continuous appearance of new viruses and epidemics that resist existing drugs, but also from an increase in abortion and perhaps a growing use of contraception.3
In the most highly developed countries, notably the United States and Western Europe, but also Japan, declining birthrates have resulted from choices that apparently reflect a desire to maximize material affluence. But the decline in births has also increased the dependence on immigration to fill necessary jobs and support the health and retirement expenses of the indigenous population. Decline in birth rates is more ominous in southern Africa, where half or more of the population risks being wiped out by the devastating spread of AIDS. As much as eighty percent of all children there are likely to be orphans within a few years, many of them infected with HIV. Meanwhile, the enforced limitation of births in China is resulting in a surplus of boys that bodes ill for China's internal and external peace. Together with the breathtaking technological advances that have literally transformed the world, these changes have had a powerful impact on the attitudes and culture of those who have lived through them.
In one century, we have effectively doubled the material progress of all previous history, and, in so doing, cut ourselves adrift from most of the accumulated wisdom and practices of previous centuries. Across the globe, peoples are being wrenched from traditional communities, some moving to the cities of their own countries, others swelling the waves of migration that are transforming the developed world. Some are profiting from new opportunities, but many more are suffering a sharp decline in their quality of life, and something between ten and thirty percent of the world's population has fallen into an underclass that has "lost touch with the labor market, with the political community, and with social participation more generally".4
The global economy is drawing peoples into a tightening web. It gravitates to the cheapest labor, continually strives to reduce the number of workers, and, by its very material success, promotes a growing social, political, and moral disfranchisement among those it touches — whether rich or poor.
The same tendencies that are consigning the poorest among us to the scrap heap of crime, drugs, disease, and early death are seducing the wealthiest into the moral bankruptcy that inexorably derives from the repudiation of responsibility for others.
Throughout the most highly developed nations, secularism has launched a full-scale attack against tradition, especially against belief in any form of divine or natural authority. The privileged of the earth deny that any authority may legitimately limit the freedom of the individual, who obeys only the dictates of personal will or desire. Meanwhile, within the developed nations and especially beyond their borders, religious fundamentalists are vehemently rejecting what they view as the social and cultural corruption of modernity.
In different ways and at different rates, both secularism and fundamentalism have contributed to what…[has been] designated as the culture of death — a culture that holds human life cheaper and cheaper until it drains it of all intrinsic value, a culture that transforms people into objects or even obstacles. This self-portrait has little appeal for the affluent of the developed world, who have no patience with the idea of the culture of death, and even less with the picture of themselves as its purveyors. Caught up in a world overflowing with commodities and armed with a science that promises to extend and even create human life, they find it easy to take their unprecedented material prosperity as the standard for human fulfillment.5
This unprecedented material prosperity has flourished against the backdrop of the bloodiest and perhaps the most eventful century in history. Its unending succession of local and global wars has perpetrated an unprecedented slaughter of combatants and non-combatants alike. The wars have triggered a massive displacement of peoples and a seemingly continuous drawing and redrawing of national boundaries. In their accelerating indifference to the distinction between military and civilian targets, they have encouraged the proliferation of brutality and terror. Those caught in the grip of the wars have demonstrated the ability to survive "theoretically intolerable conditions", but their very endurance has deadened the rest of us to our "accelerating return to what our nineteenth-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism".6 Arguably, the twentieth century witnessed the horrors that Moses promised to the children of Israel should they turn away from their God.
Together with the revolutionary developments of the century, the proliferating atrocities inexorably hardened lines both within and among nations and between the affluent and the dispossessed, imposing unprecedented hardship on some while showering unprecedented material prosperity on others. According to Eric Hobsbawm, the century was "the age of extremes", and the most striking characteristic of its close may well have been the tension between the "accelerating process of globalization and the inability of both public institutions and the collective behavior of human beings to come to terms with it".7 These words, written by a great Marxist historian, might well have come from a Christian. Privately, individuals may cope well, but mediating institutions — notably families and churches — are in disarray.
Critics of both Left and Right have bemoaned the centrifugal pull of modernity on social institutions, and notwithstanding vehement disagreements, both groups have especially focused on the dehumanizing tendencies of the economy and urban life. At the same time, feminists have sharply attacked the social, religious, and political institutions of the West for their oppression of women, whom they excluded from the benefits of individualism. In this instance, feminist hostility seems sorely misplaced since the very institutions they are attacking fostered the emergence of modern feminism. The ideals of individual freedom and political democracy are distinctly Western — and Christian — and their political vocabulary of freedom, equality, and democracy has provided women with the principal justification for their campaign to enjoy the full status of citizenship.8
Many women remain dissatisfied with the results of women's independent access to public life, usually on the grounds that formal equality with men has not netted women an equal share of wealth, power, and prestige. But it is hard to deny that the change — improvement — in women's situation has been revolutionary. Indeed, if there is a negative side to these developments it lies in the dramatic erosion of social institutions, most of all the family. One of the major consequences of feminist political efforts during the past three or four decades has been decisively to blur the boundary between public and private and, by extension, between political and social institutions. In this respect, the chickens of the early slogan of Second Stage Feminism, "the personal is political", have come home to roost in the growing politicization of personal relations.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, but at a rapidly accelerating rate since the 1960s, feminism has been waging a relentless attack on all institutions, notably the family and the Church, that have curtailed women's autonomy, and, in this respect, it has become the cutting edge of the most destructive aspects of modernity. Feminism has primary responsibility for a redefinition of the right to privacy that substitutes the individual for the couple or the family and that, as Mary Ann Glendon has cogently argued, represents a radical departure from American and Western European legal norms. Symbolically, the reduction of privacy to the privacy of the solitary individual sounds the death knell of social institutions, especially the family, as organic units with claims upon their members.
My point is neither to deny nor minimize the abuses to which women have been subjected. Had not the abuses so often been so egregious, the revolt against them might not have been so destructive. But they were, and we are left with the wreckage — and the question of whether the improvement in women's position in the family and in the world was worth the price, which, today, seems daunting. More troubling yet is the question of whether the struggle to improve women's situation was waged on the right grounds or for the right reasons. At issue is not the legitimacy of women's complaints, but the inherent justice of feminists' proposed solutions, which have pushed individualism to its most destructive limits in the claim that a woman's freedom from oppression depends on her right to have an abortion at any stage in a pregnancy.
From a social perspective, the succession of Supreme Court decisions on abortion since Roe v. Wade in 1973 has furthered the tendency to dissolve the family as an organic unit into the random collection of its current members. Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth (1976) denied the husband's right to participate in his wife's decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy.9 By this logic, the husband has no more stake in his wife's pregnancy than any other individual — and, consequently, as Tiffany R. Jones and Larry Peterman argue, "there is nothing of one's own in the most serious sense left for husbands in the family".
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) drove the consequences home, holding that a husband "has no enforceable right to require a wife to advise him before she exercises her personal choices". She has no obligation to obtain her husband's consent for an abortion and no obligation to notify him she is having one. The very idea that a husband has an interest in his wife's pregnancy reflects "a different understanding of the family" from that which these court rulings advance.
Casey made explicit the social and economic assumptions that underlie the case for abortion on demand: since women had become accustomed to the free disposition of their sexuality and labor, an unplanned pregnancy should not be allowed to interfere with their ability to support themselves — or force a man or the government to do so for them. If the woman can afford a child, she has the right to carry her pregnancy to term, and if she cannot, she must have the "right" to abort it. For feminists the right to abortion is necessary to the defense of women's sexual liberation. For elite men and women, it is too often the defense of their freedom from economic responsibility for those less fortunate than they. The consequence of both attitudes is to reduce an unborn baby to the status of a material object — a possession to be disposed of at will. It should make us thoughtful that, on this point, the largest and most powerful business interests and the feminist activists agree.
nding abortion as the cornerstone of women's liberation, feminists, whether intentionally or naively, expose the contradictions at the heart of the movement — and its moral bankruptcy. In truth, those who claim that there are "many" feminisms have a point — albeit a very limited one. In my judgment, there are not many feminisms, but one, if only because there is only one official political movement, and it has the Democratic Party in a vise. But there are many different feminist positions on a variety of questions, and they are often in contradiction. Some feminists attach great importance to differences among women by race, ethnicity, and class. Others do not. Some see women as innately nurturing and loving, others reject the idea of any innate attributes. Feminists may see themselves as women of faith or as resolutely secular, as fundamentally the same as men or as radically different from them, and so on ad infinitum. But, in the end, the vaunted diversity of feminisms is little more than a question of fashion or style.
Feminism rests upon the conviction that no one has the right to tell a woman what to do — to abridge her right to self-determination — or to compromise her absolute equality with men. All the variants on feminism are thus united by a fierce commitment to individualism and equality, and all fundamentally reject the notion of legitimate authority. The right to woman's "liberation" from the thralldom of womanhood to which her foremothers were bound ultimately depends upon her liberation from binding ties to others and especially to tradition or historical precedent. The "difference between the sexes" is but another of those lies that were perpetrated on women to keep them barefoot and pregnant — or fashionable and pregnant as the case might be. The real kicker was the pregnant, for pregnancy and the children to which it led did more even than men to exclude women from the full range of opportunities and occupations. Thus feminism, which had originated in the commitment to defend women as a sex, came to repudiate sex in favor of "gender", and feminists rapidly convinced the culture at large that to use any other term was ipso facto an act of discrimination.10
This line of reasoning led directly to the defense of abortion on demand as the only sure guarantee of women's individual rights and their equality with men. For feminists, the issue was not the taking of a human life but "choice" — the protection of a woman's right to choose her own destiny. Most resented the suggestion that a woman who had an abortion was killing her child, although a few candid souls, notably Cynthia Daniels, did — and justified the killing on the grounds that the child was a predator, draining her very substance.11 Daniels was rare in her willingness to defend abortion as a woman's right to fight for her own survival, but those who lacked her candor shared her conviction that at issue was the right of survival. Increasingly, abortion emerged as the litmus test of what it means to be a feminist. Feminists for Life are making a brave attempt to contest this terrain, but have yet to make much political headway.
The radical individualism of the pro-abortion feminists runs directly counter to much theology of the human person. In the simplest possible terms, to grant one person the "right" to kill another is to succumb to the ultimate objectification. Recently, there has been a concerted attempt to dismiss the position as political partisanship, but it is deeply misguided…
The radicals and secularists have so thoroughly co-opted the debate over feminism — over women's nature, vocation, and destiny — that it has become virtually impossible to recognize how much is really at stake. For under the guise of, "How could any charitable person deny this promising young woman the opportunity to develop her talents to the full and in precisely the way she sees fit?" we are being asked to concede the very notion of the human person as necessarily connected to others. Sadly but inescapably, the sexual liberation of women — appropriately known as the sexual revolution — has led to the disintegration of the family, the objectification of the person, and the repudiation of all binding ties among individuals…
In practice, the sexual liberation of women has realized men's most predatory sexual fantasies. As women shook themselves free from the norms and conventions of sexual conduct, men did the same.12 There can be no doubt that women's situation has demanded improvement — and continues to do so throughout much of the world. But the emphasis upon individual rights at the expense of mutual responsibility and service is not the way to secure it. Worse, it is destroying the fabric of our society as a whole because it is severing the most fundamental social bonds. Binding ties constrain women, but they constrain men as well. A Danielle Crittenden has noted, the family "has never been about the promotion of rights but the surrender of them — by both the man and the woman".13
The point is emphatically not to blame women, who often suffer from these developments. By destroying the stigma that condemned women for sexual activity outside of marriage, the ethos of sexual liberation, combined with the feminist campaign against marriage and motherhood, has directly contributed to our declining birth rate, the proliferation of single parents, and the number of children born outside of marriage. The new economic forces and systems that have come to dominate global life systematically erode institutionalized family life.14 The new multi-national economic giants have no need for stable families, which may actually interfere with their ability to manage workers and sell goods.
Under these conditions, we cannot expect the world of production to foster the restoration of a responsible and ordered social and moral life. In the United States — and much of the Western world — women have always borne a disproportionate responsibility to embody moral precepts, and women have been noticeably more likely than men to practice the virtues of faith in everyday life. Today, feminism has taught us to view the practice of these virtues as work fit only for servants. In this scenario, a child, rather than a joy, a blessing, a promise for the future, becomes only a burden.
The idea that sexual freedom is an individual right, which must be liberated from any reproductive consequences, has decisively contributed to the terrifying cheapening of life that has dominated the twentieth century and is opening the twenty-first. What most of its defenders fail to recognize is how well it supports the most sinister aspects of a global economy that is pulling people out of family and community settings and, in so doing, seriously eroding our ability to imagine and defend an idea of the human person as one who must never be objectified — must never be treated as a means rather than an end.
1 "Women's Rights, Affirmative Action, and the Myth of Individualism", George Washington Law Review (Fall 1986).
2 Ronald Dworkin, Life's Dominion: An Argument about Abortion Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (New York, 1993), and my review in The Washington Post (1993).
3 Phillip Longman, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates
Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It (New York, 2004), and Marina Melenic, "Decline and Fall," The American Spectator, online edition (June 14, 2004). See also, LifeSiteNews.com, Wellington, June 15, 2004, reports on newly released statistics on New Zealand that reveal "a steady increase in the abortion rate in New Zealand", which "had 1130 more abortions in 2003 than 2002". Of these abortions, one in three were on women who had already had an abortion, and "and the jump was even higher for women between the ages of 15 and 20, from 20 to 21 per 1000. One in ten had already had two or more abortions".
4 The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century, ed. Michael Howard and WM. Roger Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 337.
5 For a thoughtful discussion of the assault on tradition, see Eric Miller, "Alone in the Academy", First Things, no. 110 (February 2004): 30-34.
6 [Hobsbawm, 1994 #2], 13.
7 The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century, 337.
8 Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Orlando Patterson, Freedom, Vol. 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (repr. ed. New York: Basic Books, 1992).
9 428 U.S. 52(1976), at 70, cited by Jones and Peterman
10 For an introduction to the theories on sex and gender, see Judith Butler.
11 Cynthia Daniels, At Women's Expense: State Power and the Politics of Fetal Rights, Cambridge, MA: 1993
12 George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen, and Michael L. Katz, "An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States", Quarterly Journal of Economics CXI (1996): 277-317. It should be noted that Akerlof, Yellen, and Katz write from the liberal rather than the conservative end of the political spectrum. Indeed former President Clinton appointed Janet L. Yellen to the Council of Economic Advisors.
13 Danielle Crittenden, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 110.
14 For the sexual and economic revolution, see Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, "Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life" (Doubleday 1996). See also Francis Fukuyama, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (Free Press 1999), and the discussions by Alan Wolfe, "The Shock of the Old", The New Republic, No. 4411 (August 2, 1999): 42-46, and also David Brooks, "Disruption and Redemption", Policy Review, No. 95 (June & July, 199): 72-77.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a member of the Voices editorial board, is Eléonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities in the history department at Emory University in Atlanta, where she founded the Institute for Women's Studies, which she directed until 1991. She continues to teach, publish and speak on history and literature and writes widely on public policy, education, religion, culture, and women's issues in scholarly journals and in the popular press. She is married to Eugene Genovese, a retired history professor.
[Voices Online Edition, Vol. XIX No. 3 Michaelmas 2004]